Essay by Mark Kaelke
This essay is part of an ongoing blog series on the Tongass National Forest, featuring the healthy & productive waters of the "Tongass 77."
The Situk River just outside Yakutat will never suffer from a lack of notoriety. Being home to what is easily the largest steelhead run in Alaska at roughly 7,500 fish annually, is not an attribute that has been kept among friends, but the Situk is really just one of several amazingly productive rivers that are part of the Yakutat Forelands.
The Forelands, part of the Tongass National Forest, stretch about 50 miles from Yakutat Bay in the north to Dry Bay to the south. The streams of the Forelands originate as cascades flowing out of the mighty Fairweather Mountains, a coastal range home to southeast Alaska’s tallest peak, 15,300 foot Mount Fairweather, and moderate in flow downstream from lakes along the muskeg forests of the flatlands below. As the rivers make their way 10 to 15 miles to their saltwater terminus, the flatlands have the effect of making them one long “tailout” – a continuous band of almost perfect spawning gravel. Add to that a multitude of slow tributaries that make for ideal rearing habitat, and you have a recipe for massive productivity and incredible species diversity. One simply could not improve on the natural design of the fish factory that is the Yakutat forelands.
An old friend from Rhode Island joins me to fish the Situk most springs. We float the river, camp, drink and fish. We do the trip earlier than most people and our off-peak timing sets up an annual flirtation with low flows and deep snow but there’s always at least a few steelhead around and the wildness of the place is omnipresent. With five species of salmon, rainbows, cutthroat and Dolly Varden all calling the Situk home, there’s a target species and time of year for a wide variety of users.
The US Congress recognized some of the value of the area, designating a portion of the west slope of the Fairweather Range as Wilderness in 1980. However, the good folks back in Washington DC passed on adding the Forelands portion and thus the fish factory to the Wilderness mix. In 1990, the Tongass Timber Reform Act designated the southern Forelands as LUD II (a protective land designation) but the Situk and Ahrnklin watersheds were left out. Whether this was a good thing or not depends on who you ask and when you ask it. Many sport, commercial and subsistence fishermen who depend on the two areas for fish would say the omission of the Situk and Ahrnklin from Wilderness and LUD II designation leaves their livelihoods hanging but ask some of those same people that question after they just pulled their moose out of the field with the assistance of a four wheeler in one of those watersheds and they’ll likely sing a different tune.
Roughly 60,000 acres of the Forelands were staked for potential mining operations as recently as 5 years ago. Although those claims have since been shown to be highly speculative and hugely expensive to investigate further, they were a wake-up call for locals and outside users alike on the impacts that could be thrust upon the Forelands. Trout Unlimited’s Tongass 77 proposal, which includes the Situk and Ahrnklin watersheds, seeks to answer that call with action to protect fisheries, conserve fish habitat and ensure customary and traditional uses and access.
Having partaken of the bountiful steelheading on the Situk often over the last 25 years and seen firsthand how fish drive the economy of Yakutat and the region, I think this is a necessary and worthwhile objective. Increasing fish conservation measures and focusing management on fish production for all Tongass 77 watersheds can be done in ways that preserve fisheries while respectingand enabling local uses, but it will it take the support of many to achieve those goals. Given its popularity and productivity, the Situk has more stakeholders than any other stream in the Tongass National Forest. Banded together, this group can be a powerful force in doing right by the Situk.